Disaster Recovery

After the Fire

The Fort McMurray community is now focused on recovery, but it will be a long-term effort.
By: and | October 1, 2016 • 7 min read

The raging wildfire that roared through Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada, in May and June was so fierce it burned the entire country’s economy.

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As a result of the fire, Canada’s GDP experienced its worst dip since the depths of the Great Recession. Losses from the blaze resulted in a 1.1 percent economic contraction in the second quarter.  The Bank of Canada cut the country’s economic outlook for the year due to the catastrophe that stopped production at oil sands facilities, forced the evacuation of about 94,000 people and destroyed 2,400 buildings.

The most recent estimate by Property Claim Services puts the insured losses at about $3.6 billion — but while more than 5,000 commercial insurance claims (about $1 billion) are included in that estimate, the hard-hit oil sands producers report few insured losses.

VIDEO: The wildfire had a devastating impact on businesses in the area.

At the peak of the fire, 10 oil and gas producers were temporarily shut down, while work at another one was reduced, said Paul Cutbush, senior vice president, catastrophe management, Aon Benfield Canada.

Even though 1.2 million barrels a day, or about $65 million daily, was lost during that month-long shutdown while the fire was nearby, “no one is talking about any oil and gas claims,” Cutbush said.

That position was made official by Suncor, one of the largest operators that was shut down due to the evacuation, and saw its production reduced by about 20 million barrels because of it.

“The company incurred $50 million of after-tax incremental costs related to evacuation and restart activities,” according to the company’s Q2 earnings report, “which was more than offset by operating cost reductions of $180 million after-tax while operations were shut in.”

It’s not just the lack of damage, said Cutbush. BI policies typically have a waiting period before policies are triggered. That period typically is 60 to 90 days, but since the marketplace is very competitive, he said, it’s possible that some of the oil and gas producers had a 30-day waiting period.

Even so, the evacuation orders issued May 3 that shut production around Fort McMurray — the hub of Canada’s oil sands extraction and processing facilities — only lasted three to four weeks, depending on their location, he said.

“A lot of companies went back online 30 days after the fire,” Cutbush said. “I think if you see any claims, it will be those [insurance] writers who have more competitively agreed to do 30-day waiting periods. But it’s still too early to tell.

“It’s risk management but it’s net retained non-insured risk management.”

The energy companies’ facilities were protected by the effectiveness of the “fire breaks” built to divert the wildfires, he said.

Emphasis on Safety

“The core of Fort McMurray exists because of the oil sands,” said Bill Adams, vice president, Western and Pacific for the Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC). “There is a strong focus on safety in those operations, and most of the people in and around Fort McMurray have that in their blood.

Bill Adams, vice president, western and Pacific, Insurance Bureau of Canada

Bill Adams, vice president, Western and Pacific, Insurance Bureau of Canada

“I am not sure any other community in North America could have accomplished the same as that town did.”

From a risk mitigation perspective, Adams said, “this incident really set a new benchmark for what can go wrong when you build a municipality in a boreal forest. We have never seen an event like this that affected so much infrastructure.

“Assessing this fire will definitely give us a new understanding, and many municipalities will have opportunities to avail themselves of the learnings.”

Andrew Bent, manager of enterprise risk management for the Alberta Energy Regulator, also praised the energy companies.

“The operators were fantastic. They knew they were part of the community and they were fast to take in some of the more than 88,000 people who had to be evacuated,” he said.

“As regulator for the industry, we require all operators to have emergency response plans in place.

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“Those plans vary with the nature of the operator from site-specific to more general contingency planning. Even so, we were dealing with an event of unprecedented scale. The fire moved very quickly and behaved very unusually from a risk-management perspective.”

The Alberta Energy Regulator had its own risk to manage as well: Bent said the staff’s families had to be evacuated.

“Once we had that secure, we swung into our role of industry support. We were in day-to-day contact with the operators and coordinating with the provincial command center. We had to understand the local situation for the operators and ask for their specific information.”

From previous smaller forest fires, regulators and operators knew that there was actually little external fire danger to mine lands, if any. Given the wide, if ugly, swathes of cleared land around the processing plants, there was little external fire danger to those either.

Still, regulators gave a general, but not blanket, emergency authorization for operators to build berms around their properties without having to file permits in advance. Actions would be reviewed afterward for environmental and safety compliance.

“The oil sands companies had better fire breaks than the towns themselves,” said Cutbush of Aon Benfield.

In addition to homes and two hotels, the wildfire destroyed three camps used by subcontractors to house oil and gas workers, which should be covered under property policies. Other direct damage from fire and smoke should also be among the covered commercial claims, he said.

Remarkably, no deaths were directly attributable to the fires.

Ethan Bayne, chief of staff for the Provincial Wildfire Recovery Task Force, said the area was “lucky the fire spared major elements of the region’s infrastructure. That includes the major hospital, the water treatment facilities and the airport.”

Ethan Bayne, chief of staff, Provincial Wildfire Recovery Task Force

Ethan Bayne, chief of staff, Provincial Wildfire Recovery Task Force

He credited local officials and industries, notably the oil sands producers, with being responsive and responsible. “The province ran an operations command center for the fire response. In the event, private fire apparatus from industry were deployed.”

In all, about 40,000 claims have been filed from wildfire that began May 1 and was finally declared under control on July 5.

It was the costliest insured wildfire on record in North America, and the costliest insured natural catastrophe in all of Canada, according to PCS, resulting in about double the claims filed after the 2013 floods in Southern Alberta.

Standard & Poors reported that primary insurers “generally have sufficient available reinsurance coverage, adequate capital adequacy, and enough group-level support (for certain subsidiaries) to absorb the losses. However, insurers with a smaller premium base and more concentrated or outsize exposure to Alberta could face some strain and their ratings may come under pressure.”

A number of insurance-linked securities funds were also hit by losses from the wildfire, but it’s unclear as to the extent.

Recovery Efforts

While fires continue to burn — there are forest fires all summer, every summer, in Canada and the U.S. — the focus in and around Fort McMurray has shifted firmly to recovery.

In the near term, the commercial focus is on rebuilding and restoration of the temporary housing needs to get business and industry back to capacity.

The IBC coordinated an effort by 40 or so underwriters handling claims to arrange a single contractor to demolish and clear damaged structures in the area.

The Alberta Energy Regulator recovery team is working with operators on start-up operational plans while monitoring regional air quality to ensure there is no risk to public safety or the environment, according to the agency.

Fewer than 1,000 of the nearly 90,000 people evacuated have returned following the lifting of the provincial state of emergency.

“From previous wildfires we have learned, unfortunately, that recovery is not quick and it is not linear,” said Bayne. “There are unforeseen and unforeseeable complications and delays.”

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Fort McMurray is accustomed to boom and bust cycles, Bayne said, “but what we are facing now is a scale never before seen.”

“At the peak boom time of the oil sands development, the region saw 600 homes completed in a year. But even if we can repeat that, it would take more than three years to rebuild 1,900 homes. The short-term housing need is already being addressed.”

He added that the first milestone in provincial recovery will be a formal recovery plan due to be released in the middle of September. It will include preliminary assessments of the incident, and also a first look at major needs for recovery.

“I cannot emphasize enough our thanks and appreciation of the oil sands industry, the indigenous communities, and the Red Cross,” said Bayne. “Our role has just been to coordinate the work they have done with the regional municipalities.” &

Gregory DL Morris is an independent business journalist based in New York with 25 years’ experience in industry, energy, finance and transportation. He can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

High Net Worth

High Net Worth Clients Live in CAT Zones. Here’s What Their Resiliency Plan Should Include

Having a resiliency plan and practicing it can make all the difference in a disaster.
By: | September 14, 2018 • 7 min read

Packed with state-of-the-art electronics, priceless collections and high-end furnishings, and situated in scenic, often remote locations, the dwellings of high net worth individuals and families pose particular challenges when it comes to disaster resiliency. But help is on the way.

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Armed with loss data, innovative new programs, technological advances, and a growing army of niche service-providers aimed at addressing an astonishingly diverse set of risks, insurers are increasingly determined to not just insure against their high net worth clients’ losses, but to prevent them.

Insurers have long been proactive in risk mitigation, but increasingly, after the recent surge in wildfire and storm losses, insureds are now, too.

“Before, insurance was considered the only step in risk management. Now, our client families realize it is one of the many imperative steps in an effective risk management strategy,” said Laura Sherman, founding partner at Baldwin Krystyn Sherman Partners.

And especially in the high net worth space, preventing that loss is vastly preferable to a payout, for insurers and insureds alike.

“If insurers can preserve even one house that’s 10 or 20 or 40 million dollars … whatever they have spent in a year is money well spent. Plus they’ve saved this important asset for the client,” said Bruce Gendelman, chairman and founder Bruce Gendelman Insurance Services.

High Net Worth Vulnerabilities

Laura Sherman, founding partner, Baldwin Krystyn Sherman Partners

As the number and size of luxury homes built in vulnerable areas has increased, so has the frequency and magnitude of extreme weather events, including hurricanes, harsh cold and winter storms, and wildfires.

“There is a growing desire to inhabit this riskier terrain,” said Jason Metzger, SVP Risk Management, PURE group of insurance companies. “In the western states alone, a little over a million homes are highly vulnerable to wildfires because of their proximity to forests that are fuller of fuel than they have been in years past.”

Such homes are often filled with expensive artwork and collections, from fine wine to rare books to couture to automobiles, each presenting unique challenges. The homes themselves present other vulnerabilities.

“Larger, more sophisticated homes are bristling with more technology than ever,” said Stephen Poux, SVP and head of Risk Management Services and Loss Prevention for AIG’s Private Client Group.

“A lightning strike can trash every electronic in the home.”

Niche Service Providers

A variety of niche service providers are stepping forward to help.

Secure facilities provide hurricane-proof, wildfire-proof off-site storage for artwork, antiques, and all manner of collectibles for seasonal or rotating storage, as well as ahead of impending disasters.

Other companies help manage such collections — a substantial challenge anytime, but especially during a crisis.

“Knowing where it is, is a huge part of mitigating the risk,” said Eric Kahan, founder of Collector Systems, a cloud-based collection management company that allows collectors to monitor their collections during loans to museums, transit between homes, or evacuation to secure storage.

“Before, insurance was considered the only step in risk management. Now, our client families realize it is one of the many imperative steps in an effective risk management strategy.” — Laura Sherman, founding partner, Baldwin Krystyn Sherman Partners

Insurers also employ specialists in-house. AIG employs four art curators who advise clients on how to protect and preserve their art collections.

Perhaps the best known and most striking example of this kind of direct insurer involvement are the fire teams insurers retain or employ to monitor fires and even spray retardant or water on threatened properties.

High-Level Service for High Net Worth

All high net worth carriers have programs that leverage expertise, loss data, and relationships with vendors to help clients avoid and recover from losses, employing the highest levels of customer service to accomplish this as unobtrusively as possible.

“What allows you to do your job best is when you develop that relationship with a client, where it’s the same people that are interacting with them on every front for their risk management,” said Steve Bitterman, chief risk services officer for Vault Insurance.

Site visits are an essential first step, allowing insurers to assess risks, make recommendations to reduce them, and establish plans in the event of a disaster.

“When you’re in a catastrophic situation, it’s high stress, time is of the essence, and people forget things,” said Sherman. “Having a written plan in place is paramount to success.”

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Another important component is knowing who will execute that plan in homes that are often unoccupied.

Domestic staff may lack the knowledge or authority to protect the homeowner’s assets, and during a disaster may be distracted dealing with threats to their own homes and families. Adequate planning includes ensuring that whoever is responsible has the training and authority to execute the plan.

Evaluating New Technology

Insurers use technologies like GPS and satellite imagery to determine which homes are directly threatened by storms or wildfires. They also assess and vet technologies that can be implemented by homeowners, from impact glass to alarm and monitoring systems, to more obscure but potentially more important options.

AIG’s Poux recommends two types of vents that mitigate important, and unexpected risks.

“There’s a fantastic technology called Smart Vent, which allows water to flow in and out of the foundation,” Poux said. “… The weight of water outside a foundation can push a foundation wall in. If you equalize that water inside and out at the same level, you negate that.”

Another wildfire risk — embers getting sucked into the attic — is, according to Poux, “typically the greatest cause of the destruction of homes.” But, he said, “Special ember-resisting venting, like Brandguard Vents, can remove that exposure altogether.”

Building Smart

Many disaster resiliency technologies can be applied at any time, but often the cost is fractional if implemented during initial construction. AIG’s Smart Build is a free program for new or remodeled homes that evolved out of AIG’s construction insurance programs.

Previously available only to homes valued at $5 million and up, Smart Build recently expanded to include homes of $1 million and up. Roughly 100 homes are enrolled, with an average value of $13 million.

“In the high net worth space, sometimes it takes longer potentially to recover, simply because there are limited contractors available to do specialty work.” — Curt Goetsch, head of underwriting, Private Client Group, Ironshore

“We know what goes wrong in high net worth homes,” said Poux, citing AIG’s decades of loss data.

“We’re incenting our client and by proxy their builder, their architects and their broker, to give us a seat at the design table. … That enables us to help tweak the architectural plans in ways that are very easy to do with a pencil, as opposed to after a home is built.”

Poux cites a remote ranch property in Texas.

Curt Goetsch, head of underwriting, Private Client Group, Ironshore

“The client was rebuilding a home but also installing new roads and grading and driveways. … The property was very far from the fire department and there wasn’t any available water on the property.”

Poux’s team was able to recommend underground water storage tanks, something that would have been prohibitively expensive after construction.

“But if the ground is open and you’ve got heavy equipment, it’s a relatively minor additional expense.”

Homes that graduate from the Smart Build program may be eligible for preferred pricing due to their added resilience, Poux said.

Recovery from Loss

A major component of disaster resiliency is still recovery from loss, and preparation is key to the prompt service expected by homeowners paying six- or seven-figure premiums.

Before Irma, PURE sent contact information for pre-assigned claim adjusters to insureds in the storm’s direct path.

“In the high net worth space, sometimes it takes longer potentially to recover, simply because there are limited contractors available to do specialty work,” said Curt Goetsch, head of underwriting for Ironshore’s Private Client Group.

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“If you’ve got custom construction or imported materials in your house, you’re not going to go down the street and just find somebody that can do that kind of work, or has those materials in stock.”

In the wake of disaster, even basic services can be scarce.

“Our claims and risk management departments have to work together in advance of the storm,” said Bitterman, “to have contractors and restoration companies and tarp and board services that are going to respond to our company’s clients, that will commit resources to us.”

And while local agents’ connections can be invaluable, Goetsch sees insurers taking more of that responsibility from the agent, to at least get the claim started.

“When there is a disaster, the agency’s staff may have to deal with personal losses,” Goetsch said. &

Jon McGoran is a novelist and magazine editor based outside of Philadelphia. He can be reached at [email protected]